In A Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian makes a great case for street epistemology, or attempting to create atheists, whenever we engage someone stuck in a faith system in our everyday lives. At first, the title comes across as a little too “evangelical” for even my taste. I mean, what about “live and let live?” Should we actively try to spread our take on things just like the religious do? What about respecting people’s views if they’re not harming anyone?
Well, Boghossian points out what many of us are aware of already. Faith, or “pretending to know things you don’t know,” as Boghosssian defines it, hurts us all. It dumbs down our society, causes us to deny science, create laws that inhibit the rights of others, and feeds radical fundamentalism. At any rate, he is not advocating for bringing this message door to door, but merely engaging in Socratic questioning when we find ourselves in a friendly conversation with those of faith. Basically, he wants us to stop backing down out of “respect” for ridiculous beliefs, distinguishing between respecting the individual and pretending to respect their beliefs, thus legitimizing irrational thought.
Where I disagreed with Boghossian was that we should always target the epistemological process of faith, rather than specific beliefs or contradictions in “holy” texts. While I agree, blind faith is the problem, and as he puts it “all faith is blind,” many will be more willing to question the “virtue” of having faith if you put a crack in the specifics of what they already believe in their particular religion. It’s a lot easier to expose the fallacious elements of faith, in general, if you can show how beloved personal beliefs fail. This often leads to questioning everything. And this is the ultimate goal, questioning—examining everything with critical thinking. Skeptical thinking is the epistemological method that leads to finding truth. In my experience, it seems that many people progress through many steps toward skepticism, and that the first step is admitting that their own holy book has undeniable errors.
My favorite part of this book was how eloquently and logically Boghossian makes his case for getting back to Classical Liberalism, rather than the modern liberalism we see so much in higher education today. Boghossian explains that in an effort to promote tolerance and acceptance, we fail to attack bad ideas and bad thinking out of a misplaced politically correct sense of diversity. While cultural diversity is a good thing, we still have to point out, question, and attack logically the ideas that cannot be true or that are harmful to freedom, democracy, human rights, etc. Boghossian discusses how certain topics are considered off limits in our educational institutions today, religion being primary. Boghossian says that liberalism today has “favored” groups that are protected, while the rules against intolerance for these groups do not apply to other groups who are not favored. For example, one favored group currently is Muslims. Boghossian states,
“Contemporary academic leftists don’t withhold making judgments entirely, as do cultural relativists. Rather, they withhold judgment to the degree that a culture seems foreign and/or alien, or to the extent that they perceive a culture to be misunderstood or victimized by the West. Islam currently occupies the top rung on the contemporary leftist hierarchy of beliefs and practices that should not be criticized.
“Leftist academicians fervently judge elements in Western culture. For example, academic leftists take great pride in condemning Western institutions, Western financial systems, and Western corporations. One might see a leftist academic withhold judgment, regarding a clitoridectomy in Northern Africa, but loudly decry a gender imbalance in the headcount of speakers at an academic conference” (Boghossian 205).
This type of hypocrisy is all too familiar. Sam Harris often points out what he sees as the dangers of the Islamic faith, as well as other religions, and I have always appreciated his willingness to come out with these issues publically, realizing this dialogue cannot be “off limits,” just because it will offend someone. Open and intelligent civil discourse requires that we can engage these issues. And as both Harris and Boghossian point out, religion is not race. People choose to change religions every day and cannot be born a certain religion even if they are born into a religious family. As Boghossian points out, Islam is the favored protected group at the moment, but we don’t have any trouble pointing out flaws in Christianity, Mormonism, or Scientology. What is the difference?
Boghossian, by no means, advocates for discriminating against the rights of anyone based on their religion, but merely states that no religion is off limits for critical examination and civil discourse.
This book is filled with wonderful references for further reading and resources to help the concerned atheist spread critical thinking, and I look forward to reading many of them; however, I will still attempt to point out specific problems with specific doctrines, rather than only targeting the faith fallacy. Overall, Boghossian conveys some very good strategies and makes his points well. Four stars out of five—Christina Knowles
Here is a link to purchase Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists